A salute to the sometimes-successful art of the anthology film

Thursday March 28, 2013


Anthology Films -- Anthology films featuring several different short stories can be, as you might expect, a pretty mixed bag. It’s like looking down on the credits of a Hollywood movie poster and seeing that a team of eight different screenwriters had their hand in creating some potential blockbuster -- you realize the odds may be against you enjoying the movie. You may be better off just hitting a casino, throwing that admission price on a roulette number and letting the wheel spin.

At the same time, anthology films have certainly found a welcome home in the horror genre. The subversive imagination of horror stories suits the short format well, where writers are less accountable for sustaining the visceral intensity over the course of a longer period of time. It’s a format that horror comic books have exploited for years, resulting in one of the better film anthologies in "Creepshow" from 1982.

Keene State College has an anthology film of its own playing starting Sunday April 7, titled "The ABC’s of Death." It’s what they like to call a "high-concept movie," with 26 different directors assigned a different letter of the alphabet to work with to try and scare the living daylights out of you.

Non-horror anthologies, however, prove a harder sell. If you’re into watching hippos dancing around in tutus to classical music, you could check out "Fantasia" (1940), even though composer Amilcare Ponchielli is probably still rolling over in his grave. At the very least, the movie proves that the notion of pairing classical pieces with a number of animated shorts can have drastically differing results.

Of course, when you have different filmmakers directing each separate story, the potential for even more of a mixed bag is even higher.

A movie like 1983’s "Twilight Zone: The Movie" is the perfect example. Based on Rod Serling’s groundbreaking television show from the 1960s, the big screen version proved disastrous from the start. Veteran actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a horrible accident while filming director John Landis’ segment "Time Out," and the event cast a pall over the whole project. As a result of the accident, director Steven Spielberg changed his mind from filming a scarier story to a gentler one, opting for a segment called "Kick the Can" about older folks rediscovering their youth. Appropriately enough, this segment proved most likely to cause you to fall asleep in your recliner.

Meanwhile Joe Dante’s anarchic sensibility made "It’s A Good Life" very entertaining, even though it was based on an episode from the original series that was even more effectively unnerving. That left "Mad Max" director George Miller’s "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" to carry the film, an undeniably frightening segment in which a crazed John Lithgow immortalized the phrase, "There’s a man on the wing of this plane!" Lithgow even managed to redefine the term "over-the-top" in his performance, and, considering none other than William Shatner starred in the original televised version, that’s really saying something.

One of the more successful entries in the anthology film genre is 1989’s "New York Stories," using the city itself as its common thread. Featuring as its directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, the film certainly possessed the highest possible pedigree. Meanwhile, by limiting the number of stories to three, it allowed the directors to stretch out and work in a longer format than what would be traditionally called a short subject.

Unfortunately, Coppola allowed his then teenage daughter Sofia help write the middle segment, a painfully naive story of a privileged child that tried to capture the mentality of an affluent young girl. However, without any critical distance and bereft of insight, the result was merely unfocussed and ultimately pointless.

However, the other two stories were excellent. Woody Allen’s story of "Oedipus Wrecks" concerned a Jewish mother who is so overbearing, she becomes a disembodied head hovering over the skyline of Manhattan so she could better berate her son. It proved to be a hilarious scenario and some of Allen’s funniest writing in years. Allen cast himself in the movie, of course, allowing his comic persona to shine through, giving fans of his humor much to savor following Allen’s preoccupations with more serious themes during that time period.

Meanwhile, Scorsese’s "Life Lessons," a portrayal of a successful painter (Nick Nolte) involved with a young protegee (Rosanna Arquette) was extraordinary, exploring themes of obsession, maturity and emotional dependency. Scorsese managed to pack an enormous amount of detail and emotion into this shorter story, spinning enough dramatic intensity to fill a feature-length film. Just like the popularity of 3D technology inspired Scorsese to explore the artistic possibilities of that format in the remarkable "Hugo" (2011), the short film format similarly inspired the director to explore its potential to the fullest. The result was a masterful piece of filmmaking, giving "New York Stories" a two-out-of-three success rate. And as Meat Loaf from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) can tell you, "two out of three ain’t bad."

"The ABC’s of Death" is playing at Keene State College at the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond starting Sunday, April 7. For show times, visit www.keene.edu or call 603-358-2160.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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